Celebrating the Sassafras

On Arbor Day, the State Arboretum of Virginia at Blandy Experimental Farm announced its second Tree of the Year: the sassafras (Sassafras albidum). We agree with Arboretum Curator T’ai Roulston that this attractive and fast-growing native species is perfectly suited to many landscapes. Growing to a height of 30 to 60 feet, it is easily identified by its three different leaf shapes: mitten, three-fingered, and oval. Sassafras is also renowned for the root beer-like fragrance given off by its leaves and other parts of the plant and as the source of filé, the thickening agent used in gumbo and other Creole cuisine. Although sassafras was traditionally brewed to make various medicinal beverages, Roulston warns that one of its chemical compounds—safrole—has been found to be carcinogenic. Only sassafras flavoring with safrole removed is available commercially now.

Sassafras is dioecious, meaning that there are male and female trees. Its blue-black fruits—a magnet for birds—appear only on female trees if they are pollinated. All sassafras trees put on a fine show in the fall, with leaf colors ranging from yellow to orange to red. Roulston notes that the sassafras “makes a very nice tree for the yard if the secondary sprouts from the base are removed to encourage a single tall tree rather than a sassafras thicket.”

Located in Boyce, Va., the State Arboretum began its tradition of naming a Tree of the Year in 2019. Its first choice: the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), another mainstay of the Virginia landscape. We look forward to next year’s selection.

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